Watts: How racist housing policy helped light the flame

Written by
A typical home for sale in Watts. The price for a three bedroom hovers around $250,000, well below the average price within the Los Angeles city limits. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This week on Press Play, we’re using the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots to talk about what has changed in the South L.A. community, and what has stayed the same.  

Four bedrooms, two bathrooms… $311,000. Three bedrooms, one bath… $199,000. In Los Angeles. Really.

People looking to buy should look no further than Watts, real estate agent Beverly Moore says. Moore deals exclusively in properties in South Los Angeles – homes that go for under $400,000 as a rule.

“People say location, location, location; but I say ownership, ownership, ownership,” Moore says, urging people to ignore Watts’ reputation as a high-crime, dangerous area.

But back in the 1940s, it was about location AND ownership for African American families. A boom in the aerospace industry lured tens of thousands of African Americans to Los Angeles during World War II. And there were very few places where black families could legally own homes.

“If you look at a map today of black Los Angeles, it’s not an accident that South Central Los Angeles is the home of the vast majority of black people in the county. Those were the boundaries set up back then,” says Josh Sides, professor of history at Cal State Northridge.

Photo: Real estate agent Beverly Moore shows off a house in Watts. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Housing deeds in most Los Angeles neighborhoods contained clauses called racially restrictive covenants that barred people from selling their homes to black buyers. South Los Angeles was one of the few areas where racially restrictive covenants were not a barrier for potential African American homeowners.

“If you look at the black population in 1940 in Los Angeles, it’s something like 60-70,000. By 1970, it’s close to 700,000. That migration utterly transforms the circumstances of black Los Angeles,” Sides says. Whereas African American Angelenos once lived in racially diverse communities, they now lived in nearly total segregation in places like Watts, he says.

But the aerospace jobs gradually disappeared after the war. And by 1965, the segregation had festered into anger at a lack of economic opportunity and services. “The most defining characteristic of Watts on the eve of the riots was not its African American majority but rather its isolation. The nearest community college was all the way in Hollywood, the nearest hospital was some miles away, law enforcement took ages to get out there, the Red Cars had almost ceased to exist,” Sides says. “[Watts] had all the urban problems you would expect without any of the amenities.”

And a deep frustration with that isolation manifested into a deep anger. An anger that contributed to six nights of rioting and looting in 1965.

After the riots, Watts stayed black – and fairly isolated – for the next few decades. But racist housing policies were weakened and African Americans moved to better neighborhoods if they had the means to do so.

And the Watts of today is majority Latino. Sides sees this demographic shift as an opportunity for fresh thinking. “If you look around 40th or 50th and Central Avenue – the heart of the old black jazz and business district – and all the signs are now in Spanish… You can look at that and say ‘what a shame that one thing has been lost’. On the other hand I think, no, this is time for this group to have a cultural revolution here. And one hopes it can occur without the same unfortunate radicalized violence that was so a part of African American lives.”

Follow all of KCRW’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, here.